EU clears path for in-flight mobile phone use

Brussels (Thomson Financial) - The European Commission on Monday unveiled plans to enable air passengers across the European Union to make and receive in-flight phone calls, removing a major obstacle for telecoms operators who want to launch this service this year.

Under the new rules, airlines would be granted national licences by the EU member states in which they are registered. These licences would be recognised throughout the EU, allowing airlines registered in France or Spain to offer mobile phone services when flying over Germany or Hungary without any additional licensing procedures.

Airlines such as Air France, BMI British Midlands and Ryanair are planning to hold or are currently holding trials, and telecoms groups are keen to launch the service. Passengers' phones will be linked to an onboard cellular network connected to the ground via satellite, and will be prevented from connecting directly to mobile networks on the ground below. This will ensure that transmission powers are kept low enough for mobile phones to be used without affecting the safety of aircraft equipment or the normal operation of terrestrial mobile networks.

Airlines need to install mobile communication services on aircraft (MCA) equipment, which is produced by several mobile equipment manufacturers. It consists of a "picocell" (a very small mobile base station or mobile "mast") and a "Network Control Unit".

The Network Control Unit stops onboard phones from trying to connect directly with land-based cellular networks, which are not designed to deal with high-speed movement. Until now, the potential disturbance to land-based mobile networks was one reason for prohibiting mobile phone use in planes. Fears that mobile phone transmissions would interfere with on-board navigation equipment have also been quelled since mobile phones need much less power to connect to a base station that is only a few metres away and on board the aircraft itself.

New regulation proposed today does not cover the pricing of in-flight mobile phone use, but the EU says it will closely monitor the levels and transparency of charges. It also recognises the potential annoyance of in-flight mobile phone conversations, and calls on operators to create the right conditions on board aircraft to ensure customers using the service do not disturb other passengers.

Air France says it will assess at the end of their six-month trial period whether customers prefer a service limited to sending and receiving text messages and e-mails or a full service which also allows them to make and receive calls.

BMI, which will trial in-flight mobile phone services for six months starting in June says it will also study customers' feedback on the service closely.

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